I wrote this article for Eco Age, and can be viewed in its original form by clicking here.
If we learned one thing from 2018, it’s that the resell market has exploded in line with the parallel ascent of conscious consumers. With market value topping nearly $20 billion (£15 billion) at the end of 2018 and growth expected to soar past $41 billion by 2022 (£31 billion), there’s no denying the impact this segment of the market is having. Second-hand, consignment, pre-owned luxury, vintage - no matter how you slice it, vintage has become big business.
While power players such as eBay, Vestiaire Collective, ThredUp, Depop and The RealReal (who just last month began exploring a possible IPO) have seen massive growth and are viewed as leading disruptors in the marketplace, there’s a new, growing wave of vintage whisperers and thrift evangelists who are leveraging a potent blend of cultural nostalgia and social media savvy to drive commerce, and writing a new chapter of vintage 3.0.
Look past the stats, headlines and IPOs and the boom can also explained on a macro-level by a rising tide of conscious consumers, who are embracing vintage as a sustainable panacea of choice in resisting fast fashion; many of whom also feel the thrill of the hunt and scarcity of these pieces as a new form of modern luxury. Gabriel Held, stylist to the stars christened "Instagram's foremost fashion historian" by Vogue, echoes this point:
“I think that nostalgia, particularly in these difficult times, is what drives desire for vintage. I know for me personally, the thrill of finally fulfilling my teenage wish list is part of the satisfaction of collecting vintage.”
I spoke with Gabriel and several other leading voices and pioneers in the trenches of this conversation and new nostalgia movement, to not only discuss how they got into the business of vintage, but also gain insight into where they think the market may head next.
Vintage is the New Luxury
Long debated and fluid in today’s globalised times, the definition of luxury is still rooted in product exclusivity and a desire to be in possession of something no one else has (or will be photographed in on Instagram). The vintage and resell market has been effective not just in bridging the gap between customers wanting exclusive items, but also having more accessible entry prices to exclusive brands that were previously unattainable.
It has also allowed many customers to expand their wardrobe aesthetic and take more risks while still not sacrificing pocket books or quality. Cherie Balch, a veteran collector and vintage evangelist who started Shrimpton Couture after starting out collecting as a teenager on trips with her grandmother, sums this sentiment up this way: “When you wear vintage you know you are going to be the only one in the room wearing it and in a world where we are increasingly on social media for the world to see, finding a look no one else has done countless times over can mean a lot. Vintage speaks to you on an emotional level and gives you the freedom to dress up maybe a little more than you would ion something new.”
Collaborations Will Blur the Lines of Old & New
The resurgence of vintage is having a blatant, accelerating impact on the already well-established practice of revisiting archives and borrowing design cues from collections past when designing new collections.
“I think upcycling and repurposing will also grow in popularity - the integration of new and old (literally) to create new products,” says the anonymous Instagram icon behind Pechuga Vintage, who has built a successful online brand capitalising on 90s era designer obsession. While this mechanic of moonlighting over eras of fashion past is certainly nothing new, the practice between the two is now more obvious and, thanks to vintage, is being interpreted in a more literal manner.
William Banks-Blaney, the ‘Vintage King’ behind London-based institution William Vintage in Mayfair, furthers this notion: “I think that vintage shapes the contemporary fashion field and that there is always a dialogue between the two. Rather than being brand-led, I think the sense of whimsicality and breadth now offered in contemporary - from Gucci’s extravagance to JS Lee’s pared down beauty - is always echoed in vintage.”
Beyond designers, even luxury e-commerce giants are finding ways to get into the game, as exemplified by Farfetch’s recent collaboration with Byronesque to launch a reissue of the cult London streetwear legend, Vexed Generation. Founder Gill Linton is no stranger to these types of collaborations, having grown his business through past collaborations with other retailers such as Open Ceremony. Given this, he’s not surprised retailers are revisiting and leaning on vintage and re-issues of culturally iconic brands to drive relevance and drum up sales:
“As with new fashion, vintage has its hype and demand for brands go up and down depending on what’s happening in contemporary fashion. The irony being that what happens in contemporary fashion is driven by vintage in the first place.”
The Customer Base Will Be Younger, More Mainstream
One of the most pronounced effects of the expansion of the resell market is the growing pushing interest amongst younger consumers. According to a report on the state of the resale market published by ThredUp, there is a clear growth and bold intent from younger consumers to increase their overall spend and investment in resale or second-hand items in the next five years.
William Banks-Blaney isn’t surprised by this given what he’s seen both in-store and online with his customers: “I had always adored anything vintage but saw so many women I knew disillusioned with the contemporary and wanting something different and were scared of vintage. Ten years ago, vintage was never considered by most women. Now delightfully, vintage is a healthy part of most women’s wardrobes and in all demographics and price points...the market has opened up to everyone who has an interest in clothes.”
However, as the mass customer expands and grows younger, this will may also have an impact on the definition of “vintage” itself, possibly making the concept and true value older in this quest for rarity and exclusivity: “The technical definition of vintage is things that are about 20-25 years old, and that lands us to just about the time period now where mass production on a planet-wide basis really ramped up. I think that moving forward this is going to have an impact on the definition of vintage and how it is bought and sold. I think that is going to make the “old” vintage even more valuable as time passes and it becomes harder and harder to find and it will change the future of vintage buying and selling as well,” says Cherie of Shrimpton Couture.
Niche Resellers and Designer Tribes Will Lead the Way
While there are many recent examples that justify the power of designer tribes and loyalists (the online stampede to snatch up Celine items after Phoebe Philo’s exit from the brand comes to mind), there now seems potential for every brand to have their vintage moment. Whether driven by the movements of big-name creative directors and designers shifting from one luxury house to another, or brands reissuing or updating beloved design icons and items of the past, a definite pack mentality is emerging within the resell market.
“What I see are people who zone in on one designer and ‘genre” of vintage and are trying to archive a specific season or key pieces. The field is becoming so big that the answer is to niche down into specifics and really narrow their focus on what they are buying,” says Cherie.
Robert Bird, who started Treasures of New York with his partner, helping her sell handbags and unwanted closet items on the side, also has seen the power of designer tribes on his business. “It's so interesting to watch different brands have their moment in the vintage-spotlight,” he says. “A couple months ago, the Dior saddlebag came back and was everywhere for a couple weeks. Then that dies down and something else comes to the surface that is the next cool brand to own vintage. Vintage designer is going to continue to evolve as people keep mixing new with vintage.”
Yet beyond the temporary hysteria and devotion that might be driven short-term by the shifts and movements of modern designer cult of personality, much of this is strengthened by the constant hum of consumers becoming both more sustainable and aware, but also wanting to also preserve a piece of fashion history that defines their personal aesthetic: “It makes sense when you read just how much waste the clothing industry produces and how much clothing is thrown away or only worn once or twice. And that is just the basics, there is a whole entire world out there for the serious collectors who are buying vintage for very real and important collection and archival reasons to preserve the work of designers from a historical perspective,” says Cherie.
The Future Favours the Storytellers
A unanimous sentiment echoed by everyone I spoke with was the power nostalgia itself has in driving the demand for all things vintage. While it’s often trumpeted by marketeers and brands alike to a point of cliché, storytelling is a crucial factor and proponent to the success of today’s resellers and those new entrants who seek success. “They value the stories from a time when fashion had meaning and subculture,” says Gill Linton.
Then of course there are more rhetorical yet equally poignant insights that prove vintage is tailormade to the digital era, where every customer is a brand and wants to tell their own story. This innate desire and consumer need are especially true with younger customers, and it comes as little surprise to those who I spoke with, who see vintage as bridging a gap in between generations of customers and the potential for brands: “The visibility of vintage went through the roof when younger influencers and celebrities started wearing and collecting their own vintage pieces. Before you knew it, younger and older generations alike were swapping stories of how they found their "vintage piece". All vintage pieces have a story and become super personal to the owner,” says Robert Bird of Treasures NYC.
Regardless of how the market evolves or if any of these trends prove to be true, it’s equal parts encouraging, fascinating and ironic how vintage has come full circle to be a new form of luxury. The surge of the resell market is promising as it becomes more relevant to a broader swath of consumers who no longer view vintage as a dirty word. No matter how the market will shift and evolve, it looks as if it’s here to stay and this is only the beginning.
As Cherie Balch puts it: